I have to admit, I had never heard of Shirley Ann Grau when this book was chosen for one of my book groups. It's the one at my work place, and we're choosing books by putting recommended titles into a random draw. The person who suggested this one got the title from an Amazon recommendation but hadn't read it either. None of us knew until we got copies in our hands that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965. I shared the results of a quick internet search with the group, including this article from Deep South magazine, which even showed a Houston connection: Ms. Grau was part of the evacuation to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, though she has since returned to her home in Louisiana.
The house of the title is the Howland place, a big old rambling 19th-century home on the outskirts of Madison City, a small town founded by the first William Howland. A veteran of the War of 1812, he wandered north from New Orleans after the war and finally settled to farm on the banks of a river he named after his mother, the Providence River. (I do love multi-generational family sagas, centered in a home.) But where exactly this town and river are located is a bit of mystery. They seem to be in a state on the Gulf Coast, but despite frequent references to Mobile and New Orleans, it's not Alabama or Louisiana. (A room full of Texas readers agreed it wasn't Texas.) The landscape around Madison City and the Howland place itself are described in detail, and both play a big part in the story, but the specificity of that setting contrasts a bit oddly with the vagueness of the location.
The story opens with Abigail, the granddaughter of the last William Howland, on the porch at the home place. She is telling her own story, and straight off we learn that there has been trouble:
I pour carelessly [watering geraniums] and the water splashes across the porch boards. I am looking out at the yard, at the front yard. Even in this dim light you can see that the turf has been broken and torn. It looks a bit like a choppy sea. The paling fence is completely gone; all you see now is the gentle fountain-like rise of the branches of the cherokee rose that grown it once.She goes on to remember the generations of her family that have lived in the house, and her own childhood there.
I shall not replace that fence. I want to remember.
As I stand there in the immaculate evening I do not find it strange to be fighting an entire town, a whole county. I am alone, yes, of course I am, but I am not particularly afraid. The house was empty and lonely before - I just did not realize it - it's no worse now. I know that I shall hurt as much as I have been hurt. I shall destroy as much as I have lost.
It's a way to live, you know. It's a way to keep your heart ticking under the sheltering arches of your ribs. And that's enough for now.
I stand in the pitch darkness and listen to the sounds of voices that roar around in my head and watch the parade of figures that come and jostle for attention before my eyes. My grandfather. My mother. Margaret. Margaret's children: Robert and Nina and Crissy.I was sold on this book by the end of the first chapter. I wanted to know what had happened, who those people were. Why Robert has recently returned to the house, after many years, and why Abigail now wishes in her heart of hearts that he was dead.
The story then shifts to sections that tell the stories of William, her grandfather, left a widower with two babies; and Margaret, an African American woman who twenty years later comes to work as his housekeeper. Thirty years younger than William, she has five children with him, three of whom grow up in the Howland home. The family and the town simply ignore this (Abigail's mother, William's daughter, "always pretended to believe that Margaret's children had just come"). Margaret's story is an interesting one. She comes from New Church, a tight-knit community of mixed-race African and Native American families, who are shunned by both blacks and whites. She herself is the product of a brief encounter with a white man traveling through, and her mother left her with the family to try and find him (she is never heard from again). Though accepted by the family, Margaret feels herself out of place. She seems to accept William's initial offer of a job as a means of escape.
The third and longest section of the book shifts back to Abigail, returning with her mother to live with her grandfather on the eve of World War II (her English father has gone back to fight in the war; she never sees him again). Abigail grows up with Margaret's children, goes off to college, and marries a very ambitious man, who uses her Howland name and money to build his political career. He runs on an openly racist and segregationist platform, though like many other people he knows about Margaret and her children. Then suddenly a family secret comes to light, which brings everything crashing down. Abigail is left to face a mob out on the Howland place, determined to burn it down.
I found this a really absorbing read, and I finished in it two days. Some of the other readers found it rather slow, in part because there are frequent descriptions of scenery, flora and fauna (with lots of snakes). I mentioned in the discussions that the careful scene-setting and leisurely narrative are less common in books today. I think that is one reason people sometimes have trouble connecting with older books. Here the details were important both for the characters and the plot, if sometimes only in hindsight. It is a deeply unsettling story, though, and my feelings toward the characters changed greatly over the course of the story, particularly in the last chapters. When I read the final page, I immediately went back to the introductory chapter, which I then understood in a whole new light.
I am very glad to have been introduced to Shirley Ann Grau, and I plan to recommend this book to another of my book groups. I see that Ms. Grau has written several others, also recently reprinted, and I am curious now about those as well. The Keepers of the House is generally considered the best, from what I have read, though The House on Coliseum Street is frequently mentioned as well.